By Chaeyoun Won and Hyonhee Shin
INCHEON/SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) - Lee Raon, a nine-year-old baseball fan, stood on the mound. But instead of throwing the ball, the boy, inside a giant clear balloon, walked towards the catcher in what was called a "socially distant first pitch" for South Korean club KT Wiz on Tuesday.
The ceremony marked the kick-off of South Korea's baseball league season after a five-week delay due to the global coronavirus pandemic, which has all but wiped the world's sporting calendar clean.
No fans were allowed in, and referees and coaches wore masks. Several clubs brought cheerleaders and major television networks aired the games, which would have otherwise been a treat for Children's Day.
With Major League Baseball on hold amid the pandemic, ESPN and Japanese sport website SPOZONE have sealed a deal to broadcast Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) games. Mookie Betts, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, shared on social media a video celebrating the KBO opening and introducing some players.
"We've been stuck at home long enough but I'm so excited to see the game," said Kim Su-hong, a 27-year-old firefighter and fan of SK Wyverns, who watched the match with his colleague from his home in Incheon, west of Seoul.
"If not for the coronavirus, I would've been in the stadium with my wife and daughter. But for now, we're going to make a bet for beer after the game."
Widespread testing, intensive contact tracing and tracking apps have enabled South Korea to limit the impact of the coronavirus rather than rely on the long lockdowns seen elsewhere.
In Seoul, as LG Twins played Doosan Bears in a popular annual "Children's Day Derby," the club live broadcast cheerleading on its YouTube channel and a smartphone app run by its telecom affiliate, LG Uplus, where fans could also participate in online events.
When Twins' slugger Kim Hyun-soo hit the first home run for the season, the YouTube channel and social media brimmed with elated comments from fans, with many posting pictures of themselves cheering from home wearing team jerseys.
Twins players celebrated the two-run homer with forearm bumps instead of high-fives, which the KBO has advised against to minimise physical contact.
Incheon-based SK Wyverns and KT Wiz, whose home is Suwon, south of Seoul, also run YouTube channels and aired videos of cheering fans on the scoreboard installed in their stadiums, facilitated by the 5G technology from their parent companies, both mobile operators.
At the Wyverns stadium, pictures of mask-wearing fans were attached to some seats, and a slogan saying "Fans, we're waiting for you" was put up.
Jung Young-suk, the captain of Wyverns' cheering squad, said he was preparing songs in English and a special performance to be streamed online for international fans.
"This no-audience period hopefully won't last long, but looking on the bright side, there could be more new baseball fans, also from abroad, watching the games from home like never before thanks to the technology," said Lee In-song, a Wyverns official.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Hyun Young Yi in Seoul, and Chaeyoun Won and Daewoung Kim in Incheon; Editing by Hugh Lawson)